Thursday, 30 January 2014

Electric Matters

Life is still a mystery despite the wonders of modern scientific medicine or biological studies. Science has always at any stage of its development since the dawn of time been a sacred cow demanding like any religion, obedience without challenge. From the ancient shaman to the robed priest to the white coats of the 21st century, science is always at the peak of knowledge and its orthodoxy and authority should, in its generic opinion remain unchallenged. Fortunately heretics existed from Copernicus to Nostradamus (the inventor of marmalade), Alec Gordon (who promoted hygiene long before Lister) to Daniel Schectman the discoverer of quasi crystals. However odd, this dance of orthodoxy versus heresy has often worked to advantage the human race.
Life is considered just a set of biochemical processes by the orthodox science of Chemistry. However other sciences suggest there is an electromagnetic dimension to the biology of living beings that makes chemical changes a secondary effect governed by the electrical being itself.
Aromatherapy  has long toyed with the idea of cellular communication using essential oils without undue explanation of the process or pathways. Aromatherapy has no money for such pure research yet the various pop books allude to the effect odour molecules have beyond obvious chemistry. Often such effects are linked with bio electricity which is itself a  somewhat mysterioius field. So let’s review what we know and can extrapolate about  the potential of the influence of bio electricity within the body and on product which is applied or taken into the body.
Galvanic electricity often used in various spa therapies  was discovered in the 18th century so is nothing new! At the beginning of the 19th century Carlo Matteucci established that  injured biological tissues generated direct electrical currents. Albert Szent-Györgyi de Nagyrápolt  an Hungarian Nobel Prize winner and incidentally the discoverer of vitamin C wrote the seminal book ‘An Introduction to Sub Molecular Biology’ coining the phrase bioenergetics. In essence scientists in Biology and Physics acknowledge that there is within the body a ‘healing’ process linked to the nervous system, in effect a secondary system that stimulates cell growth and repair  and so is part of the human antiageing and repair strategy. Sleep as we know is part of the repair process and sleep changes the electrical potentials in the brain.

In my lectures I refer to us as individuals only as consciousness. True we are a mix of gases, chemicals, liquids, fluids and solids but that is not who ‘we’ are. As a baby we are nothing, an open book  and our life fight is to gain experience, communication skills, knowledge (and perhaps something else).   Our body I describe as structure needed only for function. Certainly our structure is chemical in nature so it follows that any disturbance of our chemistry affects both the function and or structure. This disharmony we call disease and often a solution lies in the correction of chemistry. On the basis of a clear understanding that we also have bio or electromagnetic fields as part of our being or structure at a level below simple chemical process, a cellular level, then it follows as implied above that an effect at an electromagnetic level affects the chemistry and so on in a feedback loop.
Wolfe’s Law of bone structure changes clearly demonstrate this, as non-uniform stress applied to a fracture will result in cells migrating to the location needed to support any new stress distribution. As collagen and other fibrous tissue is piezoelectric the ‘stress’ field with its micro currents cause distribution to specific locations. Of course this does not allow for mental effects or ‘will’ power which is not part of this discussion but for example if there is no belief there is no ‘healing’ on occasions. At a cellular level we clearly see the electromagnetic influence but at a sub molecular level ,as in quantum physics, we resort to strange wording like charm and spin so these minute energetic influences we term subtle energies.

The existences of electromagnetic fields and subtle energies are not necessarily good news in orthodox Chemistry used to a set of tests which maximise dosage to a common level of acceptability called clinical trials purporting to show effect. (Interestingly numerous trials show little difference between placebo and a real drug in such trials). Whilst this should not be exaggerated we have to accept that the response to a drug as with any poison depends on dosage and this can only be taken as an average whereby a maximum gives a consistent and reliable effect overriding any resistance.  Chemistry itself is however based on electromagnetism.
We should remind ourselves that our skin is a multifunctional organ massed with nerves and our main source of interaction with the environment. We are mostly unaware of its activity. It is also an environment for a forest of micro-organisms unique to an individual as a fingerprint.  These serve a symbiotic relationship with the skin.  

Classical Aromatherapy has always advocated hands on methods of application of essential oils from skin care to medical applications. Put another way Aromatherapy advocate’s therapeutic touch which is a communication through the skin nervous system affecting any applied result. This is well accepted in massage therapy even if not fully understood whereby the ‘field’ of the giver interacts with the receiver. The recipient may enter a deep state of relaxation and the giver a meditative state with or without essential oils. Essential oils can enhance the experience or detract from it. If the giver is thinking of lunch when massaging, then the experience is entirely mechanical or simply physiotherapy and may be in conflict with the ‘message’ of an essence so causing irritation. Aromatherapy properly applied can add to the therapeutic experience, utilising the sense of smell and the power of aromatic molecules as communicants not relying on any topical pathways to the bloodstream. All such work is interacting with the bio electric field of the individual at a subtle level.

All matter has an electric field or if you prefer a vibration or wavelength. Some people affect TV reception, others computers or mobile phones and most have experienced the sparking of a key when put into a car lock at some time. Such fields can today be measured but not so in the recent past. Their value in terms of physiology has yet to be fully understood and such words as ‘energy’ and ‘touch’ are still not fashionable in orthodox circles.

The question is whether anything placed on the skin can affect the field. The question of how is another issue. Chemical pathways are well understood and the cosmetics industry suffers from legislation that effectively says that if it really works it is a medicine! Pathways through the skin relate to the size of the molecule and as said before the biological processes in various organs deal with particles that make it through the skin. We know the immune system (which is not a single entity at all) operates by communication at a subtle level transferring to the electromagnetic level. Therefore ingression of a highly excited molecule will or can affect the immune system. But does it need to ingress. Not at all. The analogy is simple enough if something transmits it only needs a specialised receiver to begin interpretation. Which brings us back to the realm of what our smell organs actually do.
For example we are all surrounded by information waves but we only know of them when we switch on a TV or radio. We are not conscious of gravity (which is a magnetic force) but a snail is very conscious of it using it for navigational purpose. The study of aromatics demonstrate communicant properties and the accepted theory is one of stereo chemical action. However the same molecules have a vibration or charge which can be interpreted by an appropriate receiver (the brain, the central nervous system) therefore giving desired effects. Such aromatic molecules are ‘outside’ the body or skin.

Light too is electromagnetic radiation and we ‘see’ certain wavelengths as colours. As biology has progressed in the last few years we now know that tiny amounts of light is emitted by living cells. The term used is  biophotonics  the study of photons emitted by biological cells. It has also been proven that cells can communicate via these biophotons, which also means that they can not only emit light - they can receive light. Light therapy has a basis in fact and in tradition. Certain colours have always been favoured in different circumstances such as red for healing in hospitals and Chinese medicine.
As every molecule that is placed on the skin or is taken to the nose has a vibration then the possibility of effect should not be discounted but put in line with observable effects. Natural  essential oils and  absolutes  used in formulations present some difficulties in that nature is highly variable and the raw materials therefrom can be equally variable. Such factors also apply to the food industry. We refer to the ‘quality’ of the raw material. The processes involved in the utilisation of the raw material have an effect on the end material. I use the term ‘may’ deliberately because we have partly entered the world of organic versus high input farming. Equally many if not most essential oils are rectified or materially changed to conform to some notional chemical requirement.

At the beginning I mentioned ‘Life’ which seems to have something to do with energy. Something dead whether a mammal or a vegetable has no electro magnetism associated with it and chemically all we humans when reduced to ash are the same.
Can such properties of ‘life’ be passed on through multiple processes and refinements? The jury is out on this. However vegetables and similar organic matter may not show loss of this ‘life’ or energy or its potential as in mammals in the same way. Seeds are the clear example; something apparently dead, dry, inert has life potential when the environment is right. It would appear quality of raw material, extraction process etc. can matter. In other words something maybe inert from one source or be energetic from another. Can something maintain its electrical properties, meaning a substance responding to an electric field, such as its dielectric constant, maintenance of charge or conductivity?

An example of process manipulation or ‘denaturing’ is best seen in the fixed oil business. The difference between say an almond oil and a hazelnut oil is to some extent only the origin as the composition is very similar. Leaving aside the subject of saturation and bonds the difference between one oil or fat and another is essentially the fatty acid or vitamin content.  Much commercial oil have these components and other minor components refined out and something labelled Almond oil may be nothing but glycerol without further value.
Oil is non conductive but then the same can be said for pure water. In the latter case salts will aid the conductivity but salts are not soluble in oil. Massage needs oil to reduce friction.

Some people relate this whole idea to Amber which is a fossil tree resin of the Pinus genus with distinct electrical properties which are easily observable. Normally it is yellow in colour, varying in shade, from pale yellow to dark brown, and occasionally being whitish, greenish, or bluish. The hardness of amber is 2 to 2.5 on Moh’s scale. It therefore cannot be scratched by the finger nail, but easily and deeply with a knife. Its specific gravity is scarcely greater than that of water, the exact specific weight being 1.05-1.096. It thus almost floats in water, especially sea-water. On being heated amber becomes soft at 150° C, and at 250° to 300° melts. It also burns readily and is used in powder form in fragrant incense sticks. At a low temperature it becomes strongly electric attracting light objects and raising hair on the head and animal fur etc.

Unfortunately confusion is easily made with a family of fragrances called Amber. Amber perfume is a fragrance description for a quality in perfume that is warm, rich and honeylike, and also somewhat powdery, oriental and earthy usually including the gums of labdanum and benzoin. An amber fragrance does not include real amber. There is also an essential oil called Ambrette  from the seeds of Abelmoschus  moshchatus as the name indicates it has a musk like odour and originates from India. So no connection with true amber at all.
An essential oil of amber does exist but is very difficult to find.  Succinic acid a main constituent of amber resin is called Spirit of Amber which has been shown to have medicinal and other properties. Amber oil is clearly more readily available than amber essential oil. But be very careful when buying such a product. Aromatherapy is so full of ‘misunderstandings’!

Tree resins and gums are compounded to form a solid mass with much of the base material coming from the Liquidamber orientalis tree. This amber 'Amber oil', is prepared in a base of beeswax and is combined with other essential oils and carriers such as sunflower oil. There are many types of amber oils on the market, most of which contain synthetic fragrance oils or synthetic carrier oils. The aroma of these oils vary widely. So nothing to do with real amber!
A further confusion was with ambergris, a waxy substance that was found floating on the ocean or washed up on the shore in ancient times (true amber floats in salt water too). It came from the sperm whale and can be refined into a oil with a strong, but pleasant aroma much used in classical perfumery. Today other refined oils have taken its place.

Our word "electricity" comes from the Greek word elektron, which was an ancient name for true amber. Amber always feels warm rather than cold in the hand. In this respect it differs from most minerals. William Gilbert had in mind ambers strange properties in the 1600’s when he described the effects of magnets, coining a new word: electric. The term electron, created in 1891, was also inspired by amber’s properties.

Some therapists use pieces of raw amber in massage therapy using them in association with frictions. The piece  of amber is used to ‘generate’ or wake the bio electric field prior to massage. Fact or fiction? We live in a sceptical world needing proof by replication and controlled trials. Yet individual reactions often ‘spoil’ these trials for patients or clients have a nasty habit of ‘feeling better’ or losing symptoms for no apparent scientific reason!  Time will tell my own opinion has always been to accept what I see and never denounce what I do not understand therefore treat every situation as individual and to try to avoid prejudice of any healing modality orthodox or alternative. That’s one of the trouble with Physics and its laws – physics is really quite weird or do I mean magic!

 True Amber oil is available mostly from Eastern Europe and if you are very lucky some very limited essential oil.  Amber jewellery is very popular from bracelets to necklace’s and is great for teething rings. I always carry a piece in my pocket next to my hip scar for comfort! But buyer beware again I am afraid much jewellery is fake plastic or plasticised resin and all those inclusions are added in as are colours. 

So whether oil or amber pieces know what you are buying but let the rich values of true amber point you to properties we do yet understand in the bio electric world within ourselves but undoubtedly will as time goes on.


© Jan Kuśmirek 2014

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Power of the Human Mind

Many years ago, as a trained herbalist and naturopath, I was attracted to a small advertisement advocating Aromatherapy.  For some reason, this little advert stuck in my brain and began my long road as a devotee of the subject.

For some reason the idea that smell or aroma had therapeutic qualities jumped out at me.  A whole series of little gears in my brain said “That sounds eminently sensible and very obvious.  Why don’t people use smell more to make themselves better”.  Perhaps this came about because as a youngster I had become very sensitive of the power that smell had over one’s feelings.  I had been in and out of hospital for a variety of reasons, mostly connected with my propensity for adventure and resulting accidents and I had come to hate the smell of ether.  The smell of ether made me feel sick.  If near a hospital I would cross the road.  Even in later years I would cross the road to avoid the smell of ether.  I could smell a hospital a mile off and I do not exaggerate.  So the idea that aroma had therapeutic qualities made absolute sense.  If “bad” smells had a physical effect so then the opposite must be true.

It seems to me that the 20th century in which I was born had no place for smell apart from some kind of fashion statement through the perfume industry.  Following the second world war, many countries voted for governments with left leaning tendencies – Labour, Social Democratic etc. which had little time for free thought or individuality, having a distinct tendency to bureaucracy and technocracy.  They built huge institutions like the British National Heath Service, which, though having merits, gradually became like the Civil Service – a career path, an employer rather than a service.  Across the world old methods and smaller units were thrown out in favour of new technologies and large complexes.  Old agriculture did not produce enough and new high input farming became normal.  Chemistry and pharmacy in particular benefited from this technological approach and today we reap the consequences in health, well being and soil structure.  We are still afraid to admit to our own responsibilities in this area.  The chemical giants and the pharmaceutical giants have us all by the throat.  We are at least partly responsible for ruining the earth by our greed with a social conscience face.

Perhaps industries rooted in chemistry more than others have benefited from the ideas that Renee Descartes put forward.  As a philosopher/scientist, he is attributed with changing the way that we think.  It is his world view that is said to have become our world view.  We have become rationalists and analysts.  It seems strange to think that mediaeval humankind was not so interested in analysis.  To us cause and effect are paramount.  The enquiring mind cannot accept one or the other alone.

Such thinking has given rise to idea of the mass – mass medication, mass education, treating all individuals as standard.  This has given incredible benefits such as the production line motor car and machine made clothing in regular sizes.  Pause for a moment and consider how well a size 10, 12, 14 or 16 actually fits or whether men’s legs really do go up in 2” jumps from 29, 31 and 33. 

Once we think outside the mass we have to consider the individual and that brings us to holistic practice which requires the thoughtful consideration of the patient, client, person as a unique entity like no other seen before.  Descartes was not too keen on the senses.  Allowing that we have five of them, his view was that sight was our most valued sense, followed by hearing.  Touch and taste were quite low class and smell was somewhere in the middle.  Viewing the body as a human mechanism he still had to accept that certain bodies floated through the air giving us various odourous feelings of the soul.  Of course Descartes argued that all the senses only exist in an intellectual way.  In other words, nothing exists outside of the mind, proposing that feeling and thinking are a single phenomenon. It is only in very recent times, with a better understanding of physics rather than chemistry,  that we are sometimes better off accepting effect rather than looking for cause.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Jean-Jacques Virey, in his book The Natural History of Medicines, Foods and Poisons said “Aromas are proper to the principal virtue of every substance.  There are even medicines whose sole efficacy resides in their odour:  flowers, lime blossom, the majority of the mint family, aromatics, anti scorbutics, musk in all which, loss of effectiveness accompanies loss of odour.” 

Such an idea pervaded my view of Aromatherapy.  Of course, it is the antithesis of an analytical review of the chemistry of essential oils.  Today more and more emphasis is given to the chemistry of an essential oil.  This is leading inexorably to the further industrialisation and standardisation of essential oils.  In truth, many aromatherapy students these days have never actually smelt or handled anything but an industrialised chemical soup purporting to be an  authentic essential oil.   A great number of their student days are spent in learning the chemical effects of individual components of essential oils and their safety.  Increasingly we are taught that essential oils contain irritants and allergens so should be used with increasing judicious caution because they cause x, y and z.  All this flies in the face of the fact that Aromatherapy has an excellent safety record and that the majority of materials have been in use one way or another for a good few centuries, if not millennia. 

 And where, I ask, does smell come into the equation?  Less and less attention is being paid to the aroma itself.  Whilst Virey’s attitude is considered long gone dead unscientific, this has never been my experience in Aromatherapy.  I have always found that smell has an incredible effect and that different essential oils, particularly those artisan grown and authentic, with provenance, have a certain vitality and zing that moves people and so, indirectly, their immune system with a cascade effect  This does not seem to be the case with their chemical cousins.

Perhaps our scientific community, before reaching for their keyboards and dashing off letters shouting “Voodoo and Witchcraft” should consider the better understanding that we have we have had in the last few years, due to Aromatherapy, of our sense of smell itself.  The new biology, like the new physics, throws up our better understanding of brain chemistry, demonstrating clearly that we are not a machine and that we have molecules of emotion and feeling.  Much of our existence is in the realms of electro magnetism, vibration and information packets.  With such ideas in mind, we can dismiss some of our earliest and rather crude views that if an odour molecule hits our olfactory bulb, it transmits a message to our limbic area, affects our memory and that’s it.  Or, if we are lucky, it produces a hormonal response on the way (which we have possibly learned through experience) and the real effect only begins when the molecule hits the blood stream via the lungs or ingestion, through the skin and so on.  That alone is where the real chemistry starts and therefore effect.  We can measure the bloodstream but not the mind. 

Whilst this analytical approach is indisputably valid in itself,  it is negating and missing the point of aroma in therapy.  People respond to aroma in different ways and it is quite wrong to suggest that aroma alone cannot influence disease.  Even following the French naturopathic approach particularly proposed by Pierre Franchomme and others, the terrain itself can be influenced by smell.  It is demonstrable that bacteria too can be influenced by smell, just as the smallest of insects are influenced by smell.  Whether this effect is the sense of smell in the human sense or, is, more properly, stimulation by molecular vibration, is another discussion but for this short article, let us just call it smell.

In my early training I was somewhat disappointed by the emphasis that was placed on massage in Aromatherapy.  This, of course, was before I learned the real value of therapeutic touch.  With the rise of standards in Aromatherapy it is, however, a shame that methods of massage have too been standardised and indeed have retreated from the original 19th and mid 20th century massages that accompanied Aromatherapy.  Today, massage is more mechanical than expressive and because it has become routine there is little resemblance to the nature of the essential oil being applied.  To illustrate – the nature of Ylang Ylang is completely different from the nature of Cypress so why should the nature of the therapeutic touch (the massage) be the same in the application of both?  Some essential oils evoke stroking, others evoke friction. 

This is not the way that Descartes thought, but it is the way that Aromatherapy was practiced in its original form before it became sanitised and adapted to the mass market, particularly by those who want to be considered health professionals and to work in the system in a standardised form.  Not that there is anything wrong in this, but in this process of acceptance one must allow for those practitioners who have a wider or broader perspective and who wish to practice in a traditional form.  It is well proven that they do no harm and those in the medical profession will recognise this as the first tenet of medicine.

The sense of smell in our training is correctly associated with that of memory.  Smell evokes memories.  Smell produces learned responses.  Here I want to focus on what memory is.  There are two activities connected with the word – that of storage and that of recollection.  They are not the same things.  This division has to do with what we may loosely call consciousness.  Memory itself is not just a brain function.  We are led to believe that memory is found in the limbic area of the brain.  Clearly the limbic area has to do with imagination, dreams etc. but there is no specific area that we can identify as “that is where the memory is” any more than we can identify the immune system as being found in a particular place. 

Such concepts are not new.  For example, we learn things off by heart.  This is just another way of talking about storage and recollection.  Physiologically speaking, as far as we know the heart does not store memory but we often use the heart as a metaphor for feelings. Feelings themselves are often recollections and feelings are what smells give us.

Avicenna, the great grandfather of modern day Aromatherapy was writing as long ago as the 11th century about the powers of the soul that translates sense, impressions into thought or memory from an external expression.  Note, please, then that a smell, viewed as an impression, is entirely individualistic.  It is what it creates to the individual that has impact on thought rather than what it itself is.  Smell therefore helps us to compose an image from material we have stored.  That image may well be one of recollection but along the way, from such a process, we develop an opinion and perhaps use a power of judgement.  This is an instinctive reaction and is often seen in animals.  A rabbit seeing a fox for the first time does not need its mother to analyse it and explain it in detail.  It is extremely difficult to link analytical thought or processes with instinct.  Instinct is something that is conscious but precedes pre-rational activity.  Isn’t that what Aromatherapy does?  Avicenna was certainly aware of this approach and just because he was writing in the 11th century I see no reason to disregard it because we are living in the 21st century.  Those of us who only look for a learned response are in the majority.  My experience  however and perhaps yours is that people have quite irrational responses to aroma that mostly, but not always, do good!  I used to think of memory like a filing cabinet whereby you simply open the file and get a picture.  Now through Aromatherapy I have come to realise that memory is a reconstruction, a synthesis of images.  This explains why different perceptions can often be found of the same event. 

Modern day thinking suggests that memory too has some outreach facility.  Indeed, memory could be found in the field that surrounds us.  Before modern day computers, we didn’t even know that we had a field and now that we know that we have one, I guess that whatever name we may call it (depending upon our scientific or esoteric views) we can better understand why there are such phenomena as mass hysteria or perhaps shared memories, perhaps even on a national scale.

Odour molecules are incredible activators and I believe that we should be promoting the sense of smell far more in the practice of Aromatherapy.  Let people smell things, let them enjoy them and go back to some of the very crude but basic ideas in Aromatherapy, e.g. a few drops of essential oil on a pad in a pillow, essential oils in cars, in the office, using proper nebulising diffusers, essential oils on a handkerchief for panic attacks, creative perfumery with a therapeutic purpose.  Because of the memory aspect there is little point in trying to understand sometimes why a certain essential oil has made a person feel better.  A patient of mine with persistent tonsillitis, after a couple of treatments, spent about half an hour talking to me about some issue in their life and has not had tonsillitis since.  I was still in touch with that patient ten years later, with no recurrence of the problem.  What provoked the recovery from an identifiable illness was a response to an unidentified essential oil.  It was Coco Chanel who said “The most mysterious, the most human thing, is smell.”

We should remember that despite textbooks, we are still at the stage where there are three theories about how we smell.  The populist theory of stereochemistry is the one that has the most credence and is most often taught as fact.  My point is that we are still uncertain about the mechanism but we can be certain about the effect.  In the last 20 years we have seen a rise in the understanding of molecules and the emotion of consciousness and how our immune system works.  In this past century, we have seen anatomy change its views on the vestigial tonsils that were not needed or the vestigial appendix that was not needed into a better understanding of how these two organs are connected to our immune systems.  Jacobsen’s Organ as part of our smell system, too, has been dismissed as vestigial and was supposed to vanish even before birth, only being present in the embryo.  It was only in the 1990s that it was “rediscovered” although it had been known since the 19th century.  The function of such an organ is not yet truly understood but it may yet prove to be part of an “awareness” system that is related to our intuitive and instinctive behaviour, hence part of our sense of what we may loosely call smell.

I think Aromatherapy should be celebrating the power of odour, the power of aroma, the power of communicative molecules in aroma.  I accept that this is difficult if you use standardised industrial materials with little or no true odour.  These poor imitations of nature, these blends of chemistry that conform to standard reference texts – may never even have seen or been a flower or leaf or root, yet they are increasingly what pharmacies want.  Their dull flatness of fragrance does not expand the mind, do not make you tingle with anticipation or just do something inexplicable.  Rather like many modern day perfumes compared to their 19th and early 20th century counterparts, just give you a headache.  Are they banned and pilloried?  No.  After all they undoubtedly conform to umpteen safety regulations which essential oils in nature do not.

Sometimes one wonders if these safety scientists have a clue about the origin of some of the materials they study.  According to their theories and regulation, a person standing in a garden designed for the blind, redolent with the smell of roses, full of the fragrance of Jasmine, with the sharp smell of contrasting Rosemary should at least be sneezing and at least be in danger of irritation to cancer from the air soaked in methyl eugenol, methyl chavicol, camphor and limonene etc.  Information is there for us to use and note, placing that along side our human experience and much regulatory information needs considerable common sense applied to it.  Aroma is a powerful tool for our memory, for our immune system.  An essential oil should sparkle out of the bottle and give of itself a certain indefinable power. 

We should not be ashamed of such thinking, trying to hide behind quasi chemistry to justify the fact that smells work.  Essential oils can vibrate with life.  Not everybody living before the latter half of the 20th century was ignorant or unenlightened about such matters.  We owe much to people like Aristotle, Avicenna and Descartes.  They contribute to a fund of human knowledge that is part of the joy of human experience.  We should be grasping this knowledge and applying this knowledge but yet realising that in health and well being everyone is an individual, realising that the mass medication of the latter half of the 20th century has had phenomenally good results but strangely has not improved the overall position of what we call health and well being.  At the same as we have seen the rise of modern medicine we have seen the rise of disease, especially of the auto immune system and the so called mystery illnesses.  If mass medicine works, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

In the modern world, it would take a huge shift of thinking to get people to accept smell therapy, aroma therapy.  It is most unlikely to happen but we can work quietly, recommending the concept that smells do you good, make for a better life and simply give your body system a better chance of self correction where possible.  What a pleasure it is to smell a rose and drink in its perfume in the evening without having to worry about its methyl eugenol content, knowing that the real life experience of human beings is that we are great survivors with something that sticks out of the front of our head called a nose that tells us more than we probably realise.
© Jan Kuśmirek 2014

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Shades of Green

From time to time, green issues impact upon natural therapies and stories abound about our natural world and its environment.  It seems an endless treadmill of disaster.  If it’s not one thing, it’s another.  Those old enough to remember the cold winters in Europe of the early 60’s recall experts telling us that we were in a new cycle.  This was leading us inexorably to another Ice Age and that the glaciers were creeping even further south.  Today the experts are telling us the reverse – that we are entering into a hot house and that glaciers are creeping ever further north.  It’s difficult to know what to believe or who to believe.  However confusion or misinformation is not necessarily a reason for complacency.

Complacency is the enemy of nature and has allowed the altering of our environment to its detriment as well as to the detriment of our own health.  Greed is the basis for the over exploitation of nature but where is the point of greed?  Who is the most greedy or reprehensible? Is it the giant corporation that allows destructive logging?  Is it the communities that subsist by destructive logging?  Is it the importer who manufactures cheap garden furniture or is it the consumer who purchases the product?  These are not simple questions or issues and are not resolved by simplistic boycotts or similar.  After all, we have entered the world of politics and just as many are greedy for power and influence as they are for money. 

In simple terms, people generate life from the soil.  Communities need to be able to make a living from the natural environment – that’s what living is all about.  Society and politics raise issues of sustainability and our natural ecology.  We are part of that ecology and have responsibilities.  Nevertheless we must accept that many journalists, political parties and individuals not only have written agendas but may have hidden agendas.  Green issues are big news.  Green issues are emotive subjects and we, the consumer,  are cynically manipulated as we ever were, despite living in an age of information.  Green politics does not mean purity.  Green journalists may not be more white than any other political colour.

Never before did the world seem to have access to as much information as it does today.  Often this information is presented not for discussion or for debate but rather for persuasion.  Theories are presented as fact, opinions are presented as facts.  We live in a world of hidden persuaders.  Of course we may argue that it is always the other guy who is persuaded, never us – we are never moved by advertising.  If that were true, the western economy would probably collapse!  Green is big business.  Just look at the supermarket shelves and Health Food stores loaded down with “natural” products.  “Natural” is not defined in law which opens us to buying very shoddy products at very expensive prices. 

This is certainly true for essential oils and to a certain extent to other forms of extracted natural goods.  The demand for green and natural products is growing all the time.  The market is fuelled by scare stories about health.  The market is also fuelled by scare stories about shortages or environmental damage.  For example if there is to be a government ban on such and such a wood because of sustainability it soon becomes in short supply, it is hardly surprising that those holding the stocks push them out very rapidly and the consumer, believing that they are not going to be able to get that product any more, buys them just as rapidly – so actually increasing demand.  Cynical?  But that’s the market place. 

Likewise with medicinal or semi medicinal products and plants.  These may be considered food supplements or traditional medicines but you notice how there is a wave of fashion that flows through the industry.  Each year there is a miracle plant, just as there is a miracle drug in the pharmaceutical industry.  We are persuaded to green miracle drugs as to any other.

Leaving aside the vagaries of the industry and just how natural a shampoo or a bubble bath is, issues of ecology and sustainability should affect practitioners.  After all, in complementary and alternative health care as well as the more select therapists in well being and beauty, one would expect to find very caring people.  That self same care can make us more vulnerable to emotive issues perhaps more so than other sections of the community.  It is good, therefore, for practitioners to examine not only what they do but what they use.  After all, why should a consumer come to see a practitioner, other than for counselling, if they can buy the self same value product in a natural health food store or pharmacy.  If the therapist supplies chamomile tea does not the consumer expect that chamomile tea to be better than a supermarket tea bag brand? 

Choices of products are an issue of ethics from the point of view of the prescribing therapist.  It has been my experience over the years that few schools really get to grips with the issues surrounding natural materials and natural products.  That is why Aromacosmetology™ as a course was born.  Those now who have passed through the course agree that it has been quite an eye opener to debate and discuss issues surrounding what we use in practice.  Take the matter of chamomile tea.  Making a direct comparison between freshly dried chamomile flower heads and a tea bag is an experience in itself.  How many therapists, though, go to this sort of trouble?  How many therapists slip into the habit of providing standardised powdered herb, often from an unknown source, in capsule form, rather than advocating tisanes or providing the more difficult to obtain high quality freshly dried flower heads.  At the end of the day, it’s often a question of economics and providing easy to use, perhaps branded goods and a not unprofitable sideline. 

Profit is not a dirty word.  All we have to do is consider value for money and in terms of ethics, efficacy.  What is the most efficacious substance?  In Aromatherapy we are constantly faced with a deluge of industrial oils.  Most students start their life with cheap industrials.  Many of the schools, particularly those government subsidised courses or in national education systems, are encouraged to buy the cheapest materials simply because some tutors are themselves unversed in the differences between categories or grades of essential oils.  The drift over the years to chemical analysis and a reliance upon the chemistry of essential oils and their co called active constituents has encouraged this lack of understanding 

Essential oils have become to many a commodity which they are definitely not.  There is a belief in some sectors of the practitioner community that a Lavender is a Lavender and it doesn’t matter where it has come from because they’re all alike, whether from Bulgaria, from France or from Tasmania.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  As more science based courses are introduced into Aromatherapy out goes the old idea of vitality, life force or whatever one may call it.  The therapy, however, was based in the idea that essential oils convey more than chemistry.  Essential oils were themselves part of the foundation of holism which, like synergy, has behind it that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.  In practical terms it would mean that a reconstructed oil, a standardised extract, a blended oil or an extract using certain solvents would have completely different characteristics from its original wild counter type, even if the chemistry looked similar.  After all, in practice it is effect that counts rather than the theory.  For whatever reason if a person’s health or well being has improved using a substance X, then that is what has happened.  This is the reality, not perhaps the theory that substance X should not have behaved in this way! 

We all use medicinal plants.  Government has chosen to tell us or define which are medicinal and which are not.  In the European Union the matter of definition is getting more complicated year by year as bio analysts tell us what our food stuffs contain.  Did you realise that by eating lettuce you are consuming a good deal of sleep inducing components?  Or that by adding Rosemary to your potatoes you are ingesting stimulating drugs that can upset your brain chemistry.  At what point do you draw the line and do you need to draw any lines rather than providing more education.  Is a lettuce a functional food and therefore subject to restrictions?  Ridiculous.  Be sure Big Brother thinks about you!

Heath and safety has become a mantra of green politics too.  However the first point of green politics is to show up the failures of the establishment.  This should generate discontent among the masses and lead to inconvenient demonstrations, bans, campaigns etc.  Good causes are sometimes hijacked for rather different ambitions than from those who started along this course.

Such an instance is the sustainability of medicinal plants.  As the demand for natural products grows, so does pressure on plant material, especially if taken from the wild.  Before criticising or jumping to conclusions, we should remember that the majority of wild collected materials come from very poor communities with financial insecurity and who are often being exploited by companies who do not pay a fair price for these wild harvested materials.  It is not really the best option to stop this collection but rather to ensure that the wild plant community (known as population) is managed or sustained.  This is partly covered by the term wild crafted, which is different from the term collected.  Sustainability requires management and that requires fair pricing.

Saying wild crafted implies (even if not having enforceable status) that the plants have been collected in a sustainable manner.  It is very arrogant of people to assume that collectors are all dastardly people stripping the countryside, ignorant of botany and economics.  Most are not so stupid as to destroy their own eco system.  In fact their forebears had been harvesting these materials, sometimes for centuries.  So they do have some ideas of sustainability without the interference from young, western fresh out of university, government funded experts who are principally there to encourage them into the world wide market. 

This world wide market would often include the introduction of high input agriculture for the production of cash crops.  Or perhaps academic plant hunters – finding a specific species, taking it from the indigenous population (both plant and human) to be transplanted to a more developed country where the farming community can make more money from an alternative crop.  Such ideas would be sold to us as sustainability. One could equally argue that it is a stealth theft from the indigenous population.  Sustainability of community often goes out of the window when cash crops are introduced.  Agriculture is not always a solution to the sustainability of plant population or indigenous community.  Are you prepared to pay the real price of fair trade?

For the ethical therapist, this should not be about the politics of the market but should be about the actual material used.  Let us go back for a moment to the principle of life force or vitality.  By ingesting or using a plant that is “vital” we are supposed to heal quicker or find that the constituents of the plant extract simply seem to work better. 

Such effects are hard to pin down but were well understood by ancient people, who although expressing themselves in poetic and fanciful terms were not at all fanciful in their concepts and ideas.  This was made very clear in the seminal work by Fritjoff Capra – the Tao of Physics.  Professor James Lovelock, too, extended these ideas into the Gaia Hypothesis.  On the basis of his hypothesis it is not the eco system that will be destroyed, but rather those of us who are destroying the planet.  In other words, the system will bite back to our total disadvantage.

Ancient people expressed their ideas in different ways.  Gabriel Mojay, when talking about alchemy, draws our attention to the transformative powers of essential oils associated with this so called science in the Mediaeval period.  Combining fire and water had the explosive effect of steam and the equally dubious practice of distillation!  The ethereal or etheric oils that were produced had both a physical form and a non physical form, (aroma) both of which had quite distinct effects. 

We of course are familiar with this today in a different context of science.  We are also at the edge of new sciences and it would be right to call Aromatherapy an energy medicine or a vibrational medicine.  Tricia Davis in her works often uses the term subtle energy in relation to Aromatherapy and essential oils.  All this affects the ethical therapist who wants to work with such vibrational medicine. 

To the dyed in the wool “allopathic or chemical” orthodox practitioner there is no interest or regard for such ideas.  Rather there is a reliance on standardised materials that are often blended, rectified or reconstructed to conform to some industrial norm or standard.  The student is led to believe that such a finger print really exists.  Nature however is far from standard and biodiversity is the name of the species game.  That’s why the term population is used for wild materials.  Within the wild population, a whole gamut of genetic jumps may occur.  That’s why you end up with blue Lavender, purple Lavender, pink Lavender, white Lavender. 

This biodiversity has some interesting characteristics.  For example, if an essential oil has infinite variability, although within some top and bottom parameters, no germ will be able to readily adapt to it.  The first ethical point of contact with plant material for a professional aromatherapist who is working with vital energy or life forces must be the wild population, the species itself.

Sustainability is really not an issue for the practice of the therapy itself.  The impact that a relatively small number of therapists would have on, say, Sandalwood is minute and the therapy itself should take precedence over all other uses for example shampoo, incense etc.  The trouble is, and as we know only too well, oils like Sandalwood, although controlled, are adulterated left, right and centre.  Sandalwood dust is incorporated in much incense (a by product of from the furniture and wood carving trade) but most of what people buy as sacred incense is no more than bamboo powder and synthetic fragrance.  In the UK not so long ago Health Which? identified one well known mail order company selling synthetic Sandalwood fragrance as authentic.  The mail order company promptly blames its supplier who admitted responsibility.  Running tests on Lavende, the magazine found mixed results (Health Which?, February 2001). Currently I am looking at some Frankincense which upon a GLC analysis (a useful tool but not an arbiter of quality) shows that it is largely Turpentine!  If therapists buy, use and sell cheap materials they neither support local communities or sustain ecology.

One could be harsh and say that people deserve what they pay for and an ever increasing demand for lower prices results in more and more junk finding its way onto the market.  Genuine aromatherapists should remember that they should be part of a very selective, traditional and exclusive supply line.  Many of the wild crafters I have met and worked with are very dedicated people, very professional people and additionally well trained in their crafting abilities and techniques.  The essential oils that they produce are often of exceptional quality, sometimes coming from very small stills – specialist stills such as percolation or hydro diffusion stills. 

The impression that is sometimes created is that wild crafted material comes from environmental rapists.  This is far from the truth. Doubtless there are rogues and poachers and there are shortages but often this results from the poorest communities being exploited by the richest countries and that includes people like you and me who are not prepared to pay the price for properly and carefully produced materials.  What is a tragedy is that in the demand for say a  boycotting, ethical communities and ethical companies can be put out of business.  The classical example is the issue over Brazilian Rosewood.  Arguments rage backwards and forwards as to whether the tree is really under pressure or not.  This is not the point at all.  First the therapist should decide whether they want to work with vibration, energy medicine, homeopathy, Aromatherapy etc.  They have to decide whether they want to work with the energy of the plant, and the species in a natural environment certainly provides the best materials.  No one can argue with that.  Once that’s established, the next consideration is the source material that comes form crafted sources, from sustainable sources.  They do exist – there are small specialist suppliers, there are conservation bodies that are encouraging re-forestation, there are all manner of activities that make really good news.  Good news does not make good journalism.  Good news does not sell books or papers and when blanket bans occur, small ethical communities go out of business.  Sure, their products were high priced in the first place and the smell alone said it was different from the industrial product which probably used pirated raw materials to add that little extra to their chemical compound.  Remember one of the big issues over Rosewood was the Communist Party attacking the use of Rosewood in Chanel perfume – decadence versus deprivation, not just sustainability.

Such issues can be raised time and time again.  At the time of writing this article I’m reviewing correspondence with my colleagues in Madagascar over the subject of Ravensara (Ravintsara).  Fragrant Earth was one of the very first companies to promote this into ethical health care and to encourage communities to traditionally harvest (wild craft) the necessary leaves.  My colleague writes “There is now little production but high demand.  Just a few years ago the oil was only known by Aromatherapists and the quantity available was enough to serve everybody.  Now lots of people ask for it but the actual quantity available has decreased, both of organic and non organic type.  ECOCERT does not want to certify any more the leaves from so called urban trees because of the possible pollution so this quantity of raw material is missing from the market, so there is extra pressure on the collector and the price increases.”  Have you noticed price increases?  I do not see it in the market so what may you be really buying?

Now where is the extra demand coming from?  It is not really coming from Aromatherapy as we know it but from the mass market who see Ravensara as a fashion.  From producers who have some international funding with some academics thrown in for good measure.  The first end result is a standardised product.  One of the justifications put forward for this standardised product is the issue of sustainability.  As I hope you can see, the issue becomes quite complex.  The driving force, however, is the large producer with the standardised material, which in the guise of green issues seeks to promote its own self interest.  This is clearly the case with many materials coming from the Chinese Republic, which is not well known for its policies on conservation.  Similar comments could be made about eastern and central Europe, Second World economies rather than Third World but where traditional values still apply and many medicines are coming from herbal sources.

So if the therapist is looking for vitality what are the alternatives if they cannot find the appropriate wild crafted material?  The secondary course is to go to organic material.  Again in the terms of green politics it has become a little bit fashionable to knock organic standards and societies.  I got into organics in my early teens.  In truth, I suppose it had always been with me – through my mother and grandparents who had encouraged my love of the soil and its natural cycles.  Also being brought up thinking that homeopathy was normal I was a prime candidate for following the trail of vitality and so was into organics early on! 

The average person, when they talk about organics, will define organically grown as being grown without pesticides, herbicides etc.  This is actually a secondary issue.  The primary aim of organics is to increase the vitality and natural strength of the plant via soil fertility.  Soil fertility includes microbial activity as well as mineral content so from the point of the ethical therapist, the professional therapist trying to give their client, patient or customer something different from what can be found in the supermarket.  The aim is to produce a healthy vital plant from a living soil.  Organically grown material is probably the best or second option if the wild material can’t be found. 

You should, however, remember the nature of the plant itself.  Earlier I had referred to wild plants as the species, the gene pool of all the varieties we would know as cultivars or things that we grow in agriculture or even in the garden.  These cultivars are often no more than slips or cuttings that have been taken from the original species.  As any gardener knows, you keep taking cuttings, and cuttings from cuttings, and cuttings from cuttings and eventually a clone - because that’s what it is – breaks down, deteriorates, has less vitality or life force.  That should tell us something.  Nature has its own way of explaining that the variety one grows is as important as anything else.  We can all probably appreciate this by thinking about tomatoes.  Tomatoes used to have taste and aroma.  These days they seem to be pretty cold, perhaps a little bitter and they have lost that warm almost musty aromatics of the old “Worthing” tomatoes. 

So sometimes it doesn’t matter how a material is grown if the variety or cultivar is poor in the first place.  Many varieties are grown for yield only and as a result have become pretty tasteless.  The same would apply to the fashion in roses which once went well away from fragrance.  The type of clone is as important as anything else.  When we buy essential oils very rarely is the term clone mentioned.  For example, if you buy High Altitude Lavender, is it from a species, a population or is it from a clone?  These are questions that professional therapists should be asking themselves.  They should be asking themselves what they really believe in, what they really want their clients and customers to have.

Another problem associated with organics is that people like to have them certified as organic.  Presumably this is because they don’t trust their supplier or really don’t know the pathways their oils have taken.  Many years ago now I had the privilege of being at the origin of what is called the Soil Association’s Symbol Scheme, a mark of quality.  So I know a little of how the system works.   Understandably it is very difficult to get an oil certified in the middle of the Brazilian rain forest!  You may actually have to put someone on a plane to get there, verify the whole system and then pay them to come back.  Now if the total production is 25 – 50 kilos, then I don’t think that is an option.  There is no way that people will pay that sort of price.  There is actually a lot of good organic material about that is uncertified.  This is often sold as pure and natural but you have to buy on trust.  Pure and natural, too, has become a meaningless phrase so again the supply line should be known and considered.  As for the rest of the crops, wild or cultivated, there is a world of technology, greed and profit between the growing community and the end user.  What Chanel uses or Avon specifies will more often determine a fashion or create a demand. 

The health food shops sell as many poor quality products as they do good quality products, especially in the toiletries sector.  Many professional therapists in medicine, health, well being and beauty want a more defined position.  They aim to maximise quality and look for efficacy not price.  Effectiveness is why people keep coming back.  If you are a manufacturer of cheap toiletries or cosmetics, that simply doesn’t apply or perhaps even matter.  It does, however, if someone has called upon us for a professionalism that cannot be found in a supermarket.  Green issues are all well and good and have their place but there should be a good deal of education and a clear understanding of the complex issues that surround each case, each country, each community, each growing method, each distillation method.  No one in their right minds wants to pick the last primrose but health professionals should be able to utilise what naturally grows in the wild.  Management and fair trade are the key.

Small time bans by therapists may well do more harm than good, especially to the small, specialist producer who is trying to keep traditional medicine along the traditional pathway.  Such ideas only suit big producers and plays directly into the hands of those who want a standardised product coming from large scale commercial agriculture or indeed into the hands of the pharmaceutical industry who is keen on restricting sales of naturals.  Very few therapists have the luxury of time to investigate the materials that we use, any more than the shopper has the time to investigate whether the organic produce they have just bought meets a specific type of organic standard.  Unfortunately at the end of the time, a certain amount of trust is involved. 

Such an idea turns green politicians red with fury.  After all we are not supposed to trust any body unless they have been blessed by those who claim authority in these matters.  Some of the people in Strasbourg who were voting for green ideas over the banning of allergens have no idea of the impact that such a simple move could make.  Incredibly some of them had no idea that essential oils were contained in citrus fruit peel, which presumably opens up the possibility that each orange or lemon should be labelled with its chemical allergen constituents! 

Few writers or journalists have really stood with wild crafters, worked with wild crafters and understood where they are coming at life from.  Few of us in the west have lived and perhaps watched the dying in Third World countries.  We need to support those who are working actively to improve matters.  We do need to consider what essential oils we buy or what herbs we buy or what herbal teas we buy.  We do need to think about organics, fair trade, wild crafting, sustainability.  That is the objective word – we need to think.  Perhaps above all we need to pay the price of supporting those communities, but then that’s another story.  Paying the price actually costs us something.  Supporting the ban and buying a cheaper alternative actually costs us nothing – it just makes us feel good.  It is enough to make Gaia die of laughter, but then as she shakes we could be thrown off the planet!

© Jan Kusmirek 2014

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Bringing Herbal Oils Home

Pick up any popular book on aromatherapy and you are transported in an instant to ancient Egypt. To the land of Pharaohs and the Blue Lotus.  Or, perhaps, to Sheba or even to Aquaba in King Solomon’s time.  If not, you will certainly pass Avicenna and the glories of the Silk Road, and Bokhara.  Perhaps you may traverse China and come back to Europe with the Crusaders to settle on alchemy.  The object of the journey is invariably the same; to establish that the ancients did indeed use aromatherapy.  There seems a need to establish credibility by ancient usage, a need to establish modern ideas with those of the ancestors. 

Today’s aromatherapy is built around the contents of the ubiquitous little brown or blue bottles of essential oils.  Today’s purpose and usage indeed have overtones of the past but it is doubtful if most of the ancients ever saw an essential oil as we know it until well into the Middles Ages.   Distillation in a crude form undoubtedly existed in some cultures and different epochs but the user of aromatic substances did not see essential oils as the universal raw material, or panacea, for every situation as we so often do today.

Doctor, priestess, shaman or even pre-historic “social user” were most adept at using aromatics in a form most suited to the occasion or need.  They did not have the benefit of the pharmacy, supermarket or mail order catalogue to dispense the concentrated powers in the little bottles.  So although the use of aromatics in the past has been so very widespread the methodology or vehicles have been very different.  The essential oil burner of today is likely to have been the incenser of the past.  Common people often could not afford candles, let alone try to fragrance them!  Essential oils were costly and rare in the early days and yet they were used in therapeutic contexts over a long time.  How so?

Most of the texts refer not to a distilled essential oil but rather an aromatic extraction.  In other words aromatic herbs were seen as beneficial food ingredients or even preservatives such as in the East where a whole system of medicine was eventually woven about the concept of taste and diagnosis by smell.  Western herbalism relied heavily upon water extracts, tisanes or teas, or perhaps tinctures which themselves replaced in a way the earlier wines and vinegars.  These latter items formed the backbone of much rural and historical medicine chests. In the 17th century many manor homes boasted a still room and country medicinal wines were in vogue.

What too of the aromatherapy one hears of in Greece and Rome -  gladiators, athletes and emperors?  Of course, much of the myth is founded on fact but what materials did they use?  Our  research tendency today is simply to read a book which often just repeats what somebody else has said as academia demands the bibliography.  In the end there is not that much original thought around.  At the turn of our century this trend is not only distorting our view of history but trivialising our knowledge of native peoples and their traditions.  Fortunately the last decade or so has seen a rise in people able to question objectively the restraints imposed by regulatory academia.  There are still plenty of people in the world who “practice” aromatherapy just as their ancestors did.  The way aromatics have been used in the past is still  alive today - if you look objectively. I have found these methods in North and South Africa as well as the Far East and even caught a whiff of this with my own grandparents.  The commonest, cheapest and most extractive method for aromatics has long been maceration in a fatty solvent, either vegetable or animal.  The pommade of the perfumer was the salve of the apothecary.  Whilst the ointment makers of Egypt were pleasuring their masters and mistresses, the priest-physicians were healing them with sweet smelling unguent.  Galen was simply telling athletes to use a rosemary body rub or friction rub!

This was first brought home to me in an exchange of “medicines” with a sangoma (traditional healer) in Africa.  Whilst he readily accepted my German chamomile oil I was not so keen on accepting his various potions based upon goat fat.  It was only really in discussion and thinking through the issue that I came to realise what I was seeing and the value of his method within an historical context.  It was not then such a large leap from goat fat to St John’s wort oil.  In my work with aromatic plants I had observed that some yield their essential oils very readily to distillation.  They seemed perhaps ‘built for the job’.  Others did not, St John’s wort being one.  However, the plant yields its ‘oil’ and spicy aroma very easily to a vegetable oil placed in the sun.  I found that other difficult-to-distill oils similarly yield their aromatic principles readily to different vegetable oil solvents.  This traditional process lacks the science of the laboratory distiller or the manufacturer with their GLC and mass spectrometer.  Nevertheless it is a true aromatherapy which most people can handle in their own backyard without many of the problems of concentration and potency associated with neat essential oils.  It is intriguing that the aromatherapist, having gone to all the trouble of obtaining the essential oil via the distillation process, simply adds back the essential oil to a vegetable oil in most instances.

Western medicine has an insatiable desire to find the miracle active ingredient in a plant medicine.  Witness the desire of so-called holistic therapists to take essential oils apart and find the magic molecule that cures X, Y or Z symptom.  Traditional healers have somewhat limited this analytical exercise to saying, for example, that the active part of rosemary is its essential oil and, on that basis alone, proceed to use it.  The oil macerations, herbal oils, infused oils or phytols (meaning here phyto=plants, ol=oleum, rather than the other uses of the term) can be made at home and are a cheap and enjoyable alternative to expensive essential oils.  They are produced commercially and, as you would expect, come in various grades being the products of both high-tech and low-tech processes.  My company has pioneered their uses gaining much valuable experience along the way from therapists who have trialled and acknowledged their uses.  Industrial processes can simply be an improvement of the sun method which takes time and, commercially, is expensive.  Other methods include centrifuge and vacuum extraction whilst the cheapest and commonest method is simply a compression process in oil.  This latter process although cheap has not shown any respect to the plant and does not achieve desirable results.  It is unfortunate that the market is price driven and so confusion exists between good quality and poor quality because the processors are unlikely at the poor end of the market to confess to a low quality product. Hence, if you can’t afford the good quality material then I would recommend that you take the time and trouble to make these infusions yourself.   There are two principle techniques.

The first is the hot method.  Take some good organic sunflower oil, say 500mls, and add 250 grams of dried herbs to the oil.  Heat the oil and the herbs in a glass bowl over a saucepan of boiling water or, if you have one, use a double saucepan.  Heat gently for two to three hours.  Keep a fire blanket handy and behave sensibly!  Hot oil is no fun.  Keep children well out of the way.  Take the bowl and pour the mixture into a small wine press and strain it into a jug.  When everything has cooled and settled down pour off into your brown storage bottles.  The extract should last for well over a year but keep it in a cool dark place.

This hot oil technique is suitable for most leaf herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and many aromatics plants you probably never even thought about.  Buy a good Herbal and put aside some of the aromatherapy ‘pop’ books.

If you are going to use fresh herb rather than dried herb, as a rule of thumb you will need three times as much plant material, i.e. 250 grams becomes 750 grams to 500ml of oil.

The cold method is usually used for plant petals or flowers such as calendula or St Johns Wort.  You need a large wide-mouthed jar such as Granny used for bottling and pickling.  A kilner jar is ideal.  Pack the jar as tight as you can with plant material but leaving enough room to pour sunflower oil on to the herb.  Slowly pour the oil in making sure it reaches every part of the plant.  Put the lid on and leave in the sun, turning the jar occasionally for two to three weeks.  There is nothing to prevent you stopping and re-starting this process,  pouring the once-infused oil to more plant material and so re-using the oil.  The final mixture should be squeezed through a jelly bag or fine muslin.  Allow it to settle, strain again and bottle.  You are now ready to go!

You could go a stage further and add this herbal or infused oil to an ointment or cream.  Unfortunately ointments today tend to use petroleum jelly or soft paraffin wax.  Recently I have been using a balm base, based on shea butter and carnauba wax.  Ointments are useful where you do not want any blending with the skin and where there is a need to have some occlusion or protection.  You can simply heat the base, again over a pan of boiling water or in double saucepan, and stir your herbal oil into the liquefied base.  A very hard ointment can be made simply using beeswax.  If you do, the unrefined yellow wax is best in my opinion.  There is of course nothing to stop you from melting your wax or base and adding aromatic herbs as with the infused oil.  But my advice in this instance is to use around only 50 grams of dried herb to 500 grams of base or beeswax.  The same hot method process is followed as with an infused oil.  You need to move quickly as the wax soon hardens and you will need thick protective gloves when you come to straining the liquid in a jelly bag.

The uses for herbal oils are as for the essential oils but the advantage of herbal oils is that you have also extracted any fat soluble vitamins, or other oil soluble actives, at the same time.  They can of course be diluted with the addition of further vegetable oil and they can be mixed together.  It is as sensible to mix yarrow and St John’s Wort as it is with lavender and bergamot.

Herbal Oils have a long and respected tradition.  To me they represent the core of historic aromatherapy and perfumery.  Their use is as much art as science.  They have been very under utilised in the modern rush and hype of that which we call aromatherapy.  They lack the glamour of essential oils as their smell is often subtle compared to the concentration of the distilled material.  Nevertheless those that use them report excellent results.  This brings its own problems as those who write or educate in aromatherapy can’t find so much about herbal oils.  The subject is not part of many formal educational programmes and getting good raw material is more difficult than with essential oils and so is less beckoning to essential oil sellers.  Be that as it may, infused oils work and respect tradition.  They are a serious competitor to the uses of essential

oils in many therapeutic situations.  In addition you can make them at home and have fun!